A leading health expert at the World Health Organization (WHO) has criticised Boris Johnson after he was pictured walking around a hospital without a face mask.
The prime minister has faced a sustained backlash after visiting Hexham General Hospital on Monday with pictures showing him talking to nurses and elbow-bumping them without a face covering on.
Now Dr David Nabarro, the WHO’s special envoy for COVID, has weighed in on the controversy, saying he was “not sitting on the fence on this one”.
He told Sky News: “Where you’ve got large amounts of virus being transmitted, everybody should do everything to avoid either getting the virus or inadvertently passing it on.
“We know that wearing a face mask reduces the risk, we know that maintaining physical distance reduces the risk, we know that hygiene by regular hand washing and coughing into your elbow reduces the risk.
“We should do it all and we should not rely on any one intervention like vaccination on its own.
“So, please, would every leader be wearing face masks? Particularly when in indoor settings.”
Nabarro said COVID was “unforgiving” and urged people to “do what we’ve got to do, regardless of what politics we adopt”.
Deputy prime minister Dominic Raab defended the PM when asked about the lack of face covering on Tuesday, insisting that “all the protocols and procedures” were followed.
But the PM has been met with criticism for not wearing a mask.
Labour’s shadow health secretary Jonathan Ashworth said Johnson was “irresponsibly parading round a hospital without a mask”, adding on Twitter: “Patients and NHS staff deserve better than this.”
The Liberal Democrats said the PM “couldn’t be bothered to wear a mask while walking around a hospital once he got there”.
Deepti Gurdasani, a senior lecturer in epidemiology at Queen Mary University of London and a member of the unofficial Independent Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (Sage), said: "The irresponsibility of not wearing a mask in a hospital- around HCWs [healthcare workers] who come into contact with vulnerable patients. This is our PM. It wasn't worth this small sacrifice to protect others - in a hospital. None of us would be allowed in without a mask. So why has he?"
Kit Yates, a biologist at the University of Bath and another member of Independent Sage, said: "This really is grotesque. Taking precautions like tucking in your tie and rolling up sleeves in a health care setting, but being so committed to your ideology that you won’t wear a mask in a pandemic. It makes me sick, and more importantly it might make vulnerable others sick."
Johnson was also pictured wearing a mask at the hospital and Downing Street and the Northumbria Healthcare NHS Foundation Trust, which runs Hexham General, defended the PM following the visit.
The trust said: “Please be assured that infection prevention and control remains an utmost priority for our trust.
“The prime minister, Boris Johnson, followed strict measures, including wearing a mask, in each clinical area he visited.”
A No 10 spokesman added: “The prime minister followed the COVID measures that were in place throughout his visit, including wearing a mask in all clinical areas. He also took a PCR test before the visit.”
Official NHS guidance for Hexham hospital, which is part of the Northumbria Trust, says: "Anyone attending our hospitals and community settings must continue to wear a face-covering at all times to protect patients, visitors and staff.
"We urge you to bring your own face covering, whether bought or home-made, however masks will be available if you do not have one.
"Please do not remove it unless advised to do so by a medical professional. Try to ensure you have no gaps in the sides of your face covering and avoid touching it."
The latest row came after Johnson was pictured last week at the COP26 climate change summit sitting maskless alongside 95-year-old environmentalist and broadcaster Sir David Attenborough.
Johnson hospital visit came on the day that the UK reported a further 57 deaths within 28 days of a positive COVID test, and another 32,322 cases.
Watch: Boris Johnson visits hospital on day Parliament debated standards